This post is part of a series entitled: “The Mahsa revolution: a political philosophy and futures studies perspective”

The goal of this series is to offer readers reflections on the on-going grassroots, women-led revolutionary movement in Iran, to be continued until its completion or the mutual exhaustion of readers and author. I will analyze, for non-Persian speakers, debates and initiatives regarding the future of Iran from a philosophical and futures studies perspective. Every revolutionary moment unlocks the space of the politically and socially conceivable and enables the hopeless to exercise their rusted capacity for imagining better futures. It also reveals normative disagreements on desirable futures, inclusion and exclusion from those futures, and strategies suitable for realizing them. Although I am not an Iranologist, my hope is to give readers a candid glimpse of the burgeoning forward-looking democratic life of Iranians in Iran and the diaspora. 

(Image: Touraj Saberivand)

Introduction to “Visions of desirable futures for Iran after the Mahsa revolution

What visions of a post-Islamist future Iran animate the Mahsa revolution? Its slogans are clear: secularism, gender equality, and democracy. Aren’t these aspirations dull compared to the anti-imperialistic and Islamist ideologies of the 1979 revolution? Four decades of life under totalitarianism have immunized Iranians against radical ideologies. Yet Iranians have aspirations that deserve to be heard and engaged with. Based on what I have informally gathered from discussions on social media, independent Iranian news outlets, countless videos of Gen Z demonstrators who elaborate on their anger and desires, I see four frequent visions of the future of Iran. 

Vision 1: Waking up from this nightmare or why an “ordinary life” is tantalizing

Protesters often compare Khamenei to Zahhak, a legendary king with two snakes stemming out of his shoulders whose daily meal consisted of fresh brains of innocent teenagers. Iranians, thus, typically experience life under the Islamic Republic as a four-decade long nightmare. The list of complaints is long and familiar: vicious torture of adults and children alike, murder and executions with show trials, periodic waves of mass executions, the constant terror of arbitrary arrests, the daily humiliation of the mandatory veil and its intrusive enforcement, and so on. When your life is nightmarish what do you dream of? Not a paradise, but as Shervin Hajipour’s song “Baraye” says, an “ordinary life.” Here, an ordinary or normal life is one in which people are neither harmed nor humiliated by authorities and have a decent standard of living. Do they idealize life in liberal democracies and consumer society? Perhaps, but young Iranians talk about social injustice, poverty, and gender apartheid, not the latest iPhone.

Vision 2: Ending patriarchy in a multicultural Iran

The second vision combines feminism with the recognition of minorities (ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, LGBTQ). The feminist vision goes beyond equality before the law (which benefits from a consensus): it depicts a profound change in social norms, cultural practices, stereotypes, and expectations. Although Iranian feminism goes back to the mid-19thcentury and the Mahsa revolution is led by women, it is unclear whether ending patriarchy is desired by large segments of the population, including the youth. For instance, in response to “Women, Life, Freedom”, some demonstrators say “Men, Homeland, Prosperity”: gender stereotypes resurface. Similarly, nobody knows to what extent the LGBTQ community is accepted. The recognition of ethnic minorities, currently victims of discrimination, is another important part of this vision: in this future, minorities will have a strong autonomy within a federal Iran with the right to be educated in their languages.  

Vision 3: From no democracy to democracy 3.0

The Iranian democratic movement has been active since the beginning of the 20th century. However, Iranians have little democratic experience and there are few significant political parties since the 1960s. The hope is then that the maturity of a highly educated population, debates in informal spaces, and exchanges on social media will be sufficient to quickly move to a modern deliberative democracy with the help of digital media. In this future, former supporters of the regime who have not committed any crimes will be reintegrated into society through transitional justice and a truth and reconciliation commission. Those who have blood on their hands will have fair trials. This ideal is widely shared by republicans and proponents of a constitutional monarchy alike, although these two groups have trouble uniting for reasons I will explain in another post. 

Vision 4: Persian Empire Redux

The small but vocal community of Iranian ultra-nationalists is nostalgic for the Persian Empire and blames Islam for the “decline” of Iran that began in 633, when Arabs invaded the Sassanian empire. Turning their backs on Islam, they want to recover an idealized past by relying on a powerful Shah able to contain Muslim clerics. They cherish the Persian language and “authentic” Iranian costumes, do not recognize ethnic minorities, and fear separatism. Whether they defend an illiberal democracy or outright dictatorship, they are not pluralists. In their future, there is no possibility of reintegrating former supporters of the Islamic Republic: they need to be purged or exiled in their millions to Venezuela or Indonesia. Although only a small group of people explicitly defends this vision, its gravitational pull does not leave other Iranians indifferent, for reasons explained by historian Reza Zia-Ebrahimi.

From divergent visions to a common platform

This overview is not exhaustive, and many Iranians combine multiple visions. Some visions are absent here, such as the aspirations of reformists whose movement was crushed in 2012. This is because reformists have so far failed to update their ideal of a softer Islamic Republic now that Iranians openly reject any form of theocracy. The challenge is then to invent a common platform able to unite for the first time the Iranian opposition within Iran and in the diaspora.

I am an Iranian-American-French Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and an Associate Senior Scholar at The Millennium Project: Global Futures Studies and Research, a Washigton, DC-based global think-tank. From 2013 till 2018, I worked at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University. I hold a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Georgetown University and graduate degrees in History of Philosophy (Sorbonne) and Medical Ethics (University Paris XII). My work focuses on the philosophy of anticipation and ethics/political philosophy applied to the digitalization of the justice system, food and agriculture, public health, and choice architecture.